On the day that Russia is set to celebrate its annexation of four Ukrainian territories, a humanitarian convoy was hit by Russian shelling near the town of Zaporizhzhia.
Officials say at least 23 people were killed in the incident and 28 people were wounded. The convoy was headed to the area to rescue family members from the occupied territory.
Russia is set to formally announce annexation of four Ukrainian territories — Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — on Friday. The Kremlin is to mark what many view as an illegal move with celebratory concerts and rallies in Moscow.
Meanwhile, Finland is the latest country to close its border to Russians. The Finland closing comes as hordes of Russian men are leaving the country to escape Russia’s military mobilization for continuing the invasion of Ukraine. In addition, Russia has begun opening draft offices at its borders to intercept men who may be leaving the country to avoid the mobilization.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the planned annexation, saying it is illegal and “must not be accepted.”
“The U.N. Charter is clear,” Guterres told reporters Thursday. “Any annexation of a state’s territory by another state resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the principles of the U.N. Charter and international law.”
He said any decision to proceed with the annexation would have “no legal value and deserves to be condemned.”
The move has been dismissed as illegitimate by Ukraine and its allies, who are readying new sanctions against Moscow in response.
“This can still be stopped,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in in his daily address Thursday in a direct appeal to Russians with an indirect reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “But to stop it, you have to stop that one in Russia who wants war more than life. Your life, citizens of Russia.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday’s ceremony will include Putin, who is to make a major speech, and the Russian-appointed heads of the regions, where the Russian orchestrated referendums ended earlier this week.
U.N. chief Guterres said Thursday, “I want to underscore that the so-called referenda in the occupied regions were conducted during active armed conflict, in areas under Russian occupation, and outside Ukraine’s legal and constitutional framework. They cannot be called a genuine expression of the popular will.”
He warned that if Russia goes ahead with the annexation, it will be a “dangerous escalation” and will further jeopardize the prospect for peace.
“It is high time to step back from the brink,” Guterres said.
Guterres’ spokesperson said the U.N. chief had conveyed this message to the Russians when he spoke with their U.N. ambassador Wednesday.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz tweeted Thursday that he assured Zelenskyy that Germany will never recognize the “so-called results.”
“The sham referendums carried out by Putin in the illegally occupied areas of Ukraine are worthless,” Scholz said.
In Washington, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal spoke about proposed legislation he and Republican Senator Lindsay Graham are supporting in response to Russia’s latest moves.
“Senator Graham and I are introducing today legislation that would very simply immediately require cutting off economic and military aid to any country that recognizes Vladimir Putin’s illegal annexation of four regions of Ukraine,” he said Thursday.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday that no matter what Russia says, the areas remain Ukrainian territory.
“In response, we will work with our allies and partners to impose additional economic costs on Russia and individuals and entities inside and outside of Russia that provide support to this action,” she said.
At the U.N. Security Council, the United States is working with Albania on a draft resolution condemning the “sham referenda,” calling on states not to recognize any altered status of Ukraine and compelling Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine.
Russia will certainly use its veto to block the measure, but that will then allow member states to move to the General Assembly to seek condemnation there. A similar strategy following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea drew the rebuke of 100 countries.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday the EU is planning to respond with “sweeping new import bans on Russian products” and to expand its export ban “to deprive the Kremlin’s military complex of key technologies.”
“This will keep Russian products out of the European market and deprive Russia of an additional 7 billion euros in revenue,” von der Leyen told reporters in Brussels. The EU’s 27 member countries would have to approve the sanctions for them to take effect and the bloc has had difficulty in reaching agreement on some previous sanctions.
“We are determined to make the Kremlin pay for this further escalation,” she said.
The Ukrainian territory Russia wants to annex represents about 15% of the country.
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.